Marie Curie at the Dinner Table: going deeper than Deep Work

Jamie Bell
Apr 26, 2019 · 11 min read
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Marie Curie at her Laboratory Table via Wikimedia Commons

In 1895, with her marriage to Pierre Curie nearing, a family member offered to buy Marie Sklodowska a wedding dress. Her response, as reported in the decades since, was,

If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark, so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.

When it came to her wedding day attire, Marie’s primary concern was its application to her work. By 1895, Marie had already graduated from the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne Université with degrees in Physics and Mathematics. Such was the dedication to her studies, Marie was known to collapse from exhaustion. Often she was so focused on her studies, and after-hours work cleaning in the laboratory, she simply didn’t eat.

Her dedication to learning continued and, in 1903, she became the first woman in France to earn a PhD in Physics. Her thesis was noted as being the single greatest contribution to science ever written.

The same year that Marie received her PhD she also received a Nobel Prize in Physics, the first woman to win the prestigious award. In 1911, she would become the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and the first to win in two sciences, when she was awarded the Prize in Chemistry.

Her achievements are many, and the stories of unwavering dedication to her work are even greater in their number. However, this dedication had its consequences, an effect not just limited to Marie: her husband and scientific collaborator, Pierre, apparently lost in thought, walked into traffic and was killed. At 66, Marie died from the effects of the radiation that resulted from her work and experiments.

Her ability to focus, avoid distraction, and achieve remarkable success made Marie Curie one of history’s deepest thinkers.

In his 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport sought to outline a way of working that had the potential to create more Marie Curies in their fields. Newport defined Deep Work as,

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Newport’s theory was developed through years of evolving his own way of working, from being a student and teenage tech entrepreneur to his current role as an Associate Professor of Computer Science. In spite of that role, the Deep Work philosophy sees Newport limit the time he spends at his computer while he stays away from social media altogether.

Deep Work is scalable, with four different strategies outlined to enable implementation in to working life. While they all involve focusing on the task and hand and removing yourself from distractions, these strategies range from spending long periods in isolation to alternating between Deep and Shallow Work as our capacity and time allows.

The philosophy of Deep Work has merit through creating a structured approach to working time, alleviating the stress of distraction, and ensuring we have the space to fully engage in the task at hand. These are all, undoubtedly, tools that contribute to mastering complex tasks and ticking off important projects. They are also tools many of us are likely to implement already as we work from home or withdraw to a quiet corner to overcome unique challenges.

In his theorising, Newport hits on the key value of our work time outside Deep Work when he says that these highly focused blocks create space for innovation and time for implementation. This also fits neatly alongside Tim Harford’s notion of slow-motion multitasking, and the numerous studies that indicate the best way to remember something is to take a break while we’re working on it. Because we are working on multiple ideas at once, we are better at thinking laterally. We can see solutions to problems within other problems. Deep Work then offers the space to take these insights and act on them.

In opposition to Deep Work, Newport defines its evil twin, Shallow Work, as

Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

On face value, these contrasting definitions build black and white ways of working; you’re either in a Deep Work state or a Shallow Work state. For Newport, there is little value in the product of the Shallow and its biggest benefit is simply in allowing rest from the Deep. This is needed, as Newport promotes Deep Work as something that “hurts”. In pushing the brain to its limit, Deep Work is the ultramarathon of mental athleticism.

This mentally-fatiguing view is balanced by some consideration of joy as Newport points to studies that imply “deep living is happy living”. He gives context to this by noting that, for some, anxiety is borne out of distraction. To overcome anxiety and push towards happy living, he encourages the implementation of a shutdown ritual to ensure your work day ends at its scheduled conclusion.

We can’t all be Marie Curie, but the greatness to be found in employing Deep Work principles is relative and scalable: in my world, finally completing this treatise will be a success on a scale of using an electrometer to measure currents produced from uranium in the air.

However, if Deep Work is a valuable way of working with tools that can be used in achieving success, or great things, then it needs an equitable force that is similarly philosophical in order to encourage a more valuable, holistic, and balanced way of working.

Growing up, my family seldom ate our evening meal at the dinner table. It was something my mother would occasionally attempt to institute but she never quite gained the support required for the takeover of our dining habits. For us, it was dinner in the lounge watching the evening news or, if I could somehow swing it, The Simpsons.

It’s something of a surprise then that my family now eat dinner together at the table every night. The TV in sight, but off.

Aside from the location of our dinner, there is another constant to our routine: we ask each other the best thing that happened in our day.

For my son, four-years-old and filled with equal measures of knowing everything and curious about everything, his favourite things are moments of connection: playing with his friends at kindergarten, an outing with his mother and sister, or simply eating dinner with his family.

While the adults tend to have more varied answers, and sometimes struggle to come up with anything after a weary day of adulting, they share the same theme: we value the moments where we connect, where we have an impact, where we are human.

In a recent post, fellow-Wellingtonian, Catarina Gutierrez introduced her own way of working to sit alongside Deep Work: Brainfood Work. For Gutierrez, this is the work “you do […] to grow and improve your work life”, the tasks you want to do.

The brain is something that Newport also discusses, however his work and thinking comes out of the emerging knowledge economy which colours his view that any organisation’s greatest resource is the brains of its people.

Not the people.

Just the brains.

Unlike this zombified view, Gutierrez acknowledges the brain as something to be nurtured with an altogether more fulfilling and self-care focused goal,

Improving upon your work is a journey that takes two kinds of work. You need to make space for both so you can sustain yourself throughout the week, month and year. You need to feed your brain to do many things and keep it healthy.

I’m hungry for the stuff that makes me better.

Brainfood Work can, however, be undertaken in a state of Deep Work: particularly through isolation, scheduling, and targeted focus. I often find myself scheduling time on a Monday morning to read the newsletters and articles that have come in over the weekend. This is Brainfood Work that feeds my curiosity and creativity: discovering new ideas like the very ones I’m writing about. However, the way I do this is more akin to a Deep way of working: I reduce distractions, schedule the time, and focus on interpreting the words and concepts of others.

Cal Newport has suggested the future of work will see people become even more specialised in their roles through positions that are specifically Deep and others that are Shallow. In his example, journalists who currently rely on being hyper-connected, largely through the web, will be able to focus on their writing while other staff become communication facilitators, watching social media or email and then alerting the journalists when a source replies or a situation emerges.

At the moment, however, we’re still in a world where we seek a balance between brain-straining tasks, brain-feeding tasks, and brain-resting tasks. While a combination of Deep, Shallow, and Brainfood ways of working can provide us some balance in the office, for most of us, these philosophies sit on one end of our desire to balance a bigger set of scales. The one where work and life sit opposite each other.

The elusive work/life balance is a focus for many employees and facilitating it is a focus for many employers. With this in mind, the Deep way of working feels isolating. Even if you’re feeding your brain, you’re doing so by removing yourself from the technological and physical connection to your workmates, and perhaps even your family. Considering the increasing dialogue around the Western world being in a Loneliness Epidemic, the disconnect within Deep Work could exacerbate the anxieties of many.

At the end of the day, when you step out of your work headspace, the search for this balance means it’s often the connection moments that linger.

Just like at my dinner table.

The weekly Work In Progress (WIP) meeting is a staple of many teams, an almost ubiquitous part of corporate life. They are also a huge waste of time.

The internet is filled with articles extolling ways to run WIP meetings that “actually work”, how to make them “awesome”, how to make them drive performance, and so on. These articles are all about restructuring meetings to make them effective. There are very few that focus on any real, successful, outcomes from WIP meetings.

I recently took on the task of redeveloping a weekly WIP meeting in to something more effective. The starting point was to determine the point of the meeting, and it was immediately obvious that getting updates on work was no longer at the centre of organisational needs. People were talking in the office, teams were holding standups, projects were being visibly tracked.

With offices in two locations, the true value of the video-conferenced meeting had become the opportunity it provided for all staff to, literally, be seen and see each other. This provided the launchpad to completely reframe the meeting.

The first action was scaling back the regularity, task focus, and reliance on a pre-completed WIP document. Then we empowered people to speak to their successes in the broadest way possible. Been for a walk every day this week? Well done. Signed up a new client? Superb. Locked in a family holiday? You deserve it.

The change has been almost instant with feedback reinforcing that the new meeting style is delivering on what people were missing in the old WIP format. People still talk about work, but they also talk to each other, share stories, show support.

So, what is the one thing we brought to the new that was absent in the old? Simple.

Connection.

Consider then, Connected Work. This already exists under Newport’s thinking as regular meetings and standups replace email, enabling people to connect with their colleagues and project progress without the distraction of message alerts. It is also already present within Gutierrez’s thinking as she promotes gathering feedback, through a variety of methods, as a fuel for Brainfood Work.

To extract Connected Work from these philosophies and acknowledge it with a space of its own enables us to implement it in to a more complete and balanced working day. Recognising the cognitive value in connecting with colleagues further boosts this type of work and allows us to embrace it to an extent where we can, perhaps, stop seeing meetings as disruptions to our flow.

That is not to say that we need to hold more meetings, or that we shouldn’t question those we’re already having. As in the WIP meeting example, being honest about your reasons for meeting is important and is the only way to ensure you find value in them.

So, how do you determine whether a meeting has value? Talking to the other attendees beforehand would be a good start.

There is more to Connected Work than simply holding meetings, however, and it’s in those other moments that it is perhaps most valuable. Implementing a Connected Work philosophy could result in more co-working opportunities, with design sprints being a popular contemporary example. These provide the space for people to engage and challenge problems and solutions in real time. There is also the potential to develop learning and knowledge sharing opportunities through events, both formal and informal. These embrace our desire to learn and grow through perspectives and connections that complement the same desire under Deep and Brainfood Work.

There’s another element which I’ve observed recently in the leader of an organisation. When tasked with telling the story of her organisation, a deeply personal task, she removed herself from her desk and computer and found space to work independently with a notebook and pen. While this has the makings of Deep Work, where she chose to sit changed the narrative. Instead of isolation and quiet, she sat at a communal work table in the middle of the office. As she wrestled with a challenging task, she opted for a location where she was connected to her people: trying to distill the organisational story while the organisation’s staff talked, worked, and connected around her.

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Imagine a working day that embraces all of these types of work: implementing them in to a schedule, à la Deep Work, but allowing for a rainbow of colours that finds time for logistics, time for inspiration, time for action, and time for each other.

If we return to the resource that is our hungry brain, we can see that, whether we are working in a Deep state or a Connected state, we use the same areas: the frontal and temporal lobes.

When we are Deep Working, the temporal lobe is largely in control as we use our memory, organise our thoughts, and process new and old learning.

Under Connected Work, the frontal lobe takes over as we engage our personality and emotions, ensuring we are self and socially aware. Switching between Deep Work and Connected Work makes a more complete use of our brain than either philosophy can alone.

An efficient, effective, and collaborative brain ensures that we are working deep enough, shallow enough, and connected enough to provide balance to our work, and to our lives.

I believe human contact is the one optimistic thing in our future.
- Michael Palin

the little CURIOUS

Lessons learnt from the curious: work, creativity…

Jamie Bell

Written by

Exploring the world through stories of the head, the heart, & history. I’m totally curious, definitely passionate, pretty empathetic, & hopefully kind.

the little CURIOUS

Lessons learnt from the curious: work, creativity, productivity, and finding balance

Jamie Bell

Written by

Exploring the world through stories of the head, the heart, & history. I’m totally curious, definitely passionate, pretty empathetic, & hopefully kind.

the little CURIOUS

Lessons learnt from the curious: work, creativity, productivity, and finding balance

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